Music, lessons and instruments play on at Ansonia’s Banko’s

August 4, 2017

ANSONIA — It’s a hot, muggy Tuesday night. Scorching-hot sidewalks still radiate summer heat under the rubber soles of those out on the street for an evening ramble.

But cool jazz and sweet sounds flow through an open door at Banko’s Music Store on East Main Street.

And Ansonians Jason St. Jacques, his wife, Amber, her mother Diane DellaMonica and the Rafferty family from Seymour are digging it.

So much so they brought lawn chairs to set out on the sidewalk, and refreshments to munch.

“It’s nice. It’s relaxing. It’s kind of a neighborhood thing,” said St. Jacques, a city employee and Democratic third ward aldermanic candidate.

Inside a pick-up group of six musicians including Joseph Shapiro, the store’s new owner, are jamming on tunes like Moondance which gave Van Morrison play, Girl from Ipanema which put Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz on the charts and How High the Moon, the Ella Fitzgerald number that kept people humming.

“It’s cool,” said Shane Long, a 12-year-old sharing the drumming duties with Fred Fallanca, 65, of Milford, while Dave Zeichner, 65, of Oxford added keyboards, James Rafferty, 17, of Seymour thumped on bass and Roger Long, Shane’s dad and Shapiro played guitar.

“You learn how to play with other people and pick up styles. It’s fun to play in a full band with good musicians,” Shane Long said.

For Fallanca its “a nice high” from the daily pressure of handling field maintenance for 82 Stop & Shop stores.

“I don’t get to play as often as I want too and this is a great opportunity to do it with people of all ages and abilities,” said the Milford man. “That 12-year-old is a good drummer already.”

Outside Jim Rafferty took out pizza and fried calamari from nearby Rosa Mina, and a milkshake for his daughter, Ayslinn, at the street’s coffee shop.

“It’s nice to come down and listen to our son playing different genres,” said Suzanne Rafferty, his wife.

And it’s free— every Tuesday night from 7:30 to 10 p.m.

“It’s good for the community. Its good for the store. And its fun for me,” said Shapiro, who takes guitar lessons from George Lesiw, a Banko teacher.

This is no longer your father’s Banko’s, which has been around downtown Ansonia since 1955.

If you need convincing just look inside. Gone are the packages, instruments and clutter that forced customers to forge their own path to the counter.

“Frank Banko was a great guy—the salt of the earth,” said Bob Nishti, who teaches woodwinds and sax at the store. “He was always willing to help.”

Nishti remembers customers coming in to request some obscure item.

“Frank would disappear for what seemed like an hour, then come back with the exact item the customer wanted,” Nishti recalled. “He had secret places where he kept stuff all over the store.”

Rumor has it that Banko began hanging instruments from the walls to avoid devastion like that caused by the flood of 1955.

Banko, an Oxford resident, died in 2004. Three years earlier he sold the store to Joe and Sherry Salvati. Last October the Salvatis sold the business to Shapiro, a 60-year old software programer and longtime customer from Shelton.

It was around that time that Shapiro was ending his partnership at Abbott and Shapiro, a Shelton software company specializing in selling computerized management programs to jewelry stores both in the U.S. and overseas.

“I’d been coming in here for about 30 years,” Shapiro said. “I approached Joe and Sherry about selling them software I was designing for music store management. They countered by asking if I was interested in buying the store. And it just went from there.”

So in October Shapiro purchased Banko’s. Not long afterwards James DeCava moved his DeCava Guitars, which custom makes and repairs the instruments from Bridgeport to 334 East Main Street.

“Ansonia has had its problems over the years but in the last three or four I’ve seen a real resurgence downtown,” Shapiro said. “There is a vibrant restaurant row that any small town would be proud to call its own.”

He spent the past six months cleaning up the clutter providing customers with ample space to walk and heads from banging into low hanging instruments. He repainted and refurbished most of the seven lesson rooms upstairs and relocated the check out counter to the adjacent storage room. Outside there’s a fresh coat of eye-catching deep blue paint, newer neutral colors inside and a brand new Banko’s sign. He hired the Salvatis to manage, brought in Natalie Riccio to market and kept the musicians teaching.

He also began taking an active interest in community events.

Like his employees playing from a van in the city’s Memorial Day parade.

There’s the 20-hour a week Summer Sessions running from noon to 4 p.m. for students 6 to 17 years old. Each includes lessons, music theory and video sessions before ending with a class concert.

“It’s pretty intense,” Shapiro said. “All my teachers have music degrees, some have teaching degrees and all perform extensively.”

Now Shapiro hopes to “deepen the relationships with local schools” where Banko’s was once the only source of instrument rentals for students. Now national companies have stepped in.

However Shapiro is banking on the knowledge of his teachers and salespeople as well as personal service to bring Banko’s back. He offers used and new equipment, accepts trades and consignments, provides repairs and lessons

Banko’s public grand opening is Saturday from noon to 5 p.m., with live music, a catered barbecue, raffle drawings and free guitar stringing from DR Strings.

“We’ll have five groups performing an hour each,” Shapiro said.

And his ultimate plan?

“I want to be the center of the music scene in the Valley and beyond,” he said.